Grandparenting with Vision Loss
By Gil Johnson
If you are a grandparent who is experiencing vision loss late in life, you may not be responsible for the day-to-day demands of child rearing, although a good many grandparents are serving as primary parents these days. But even if Mom and Dad are involved, there’s still plenty of teaching, entertaining, and spoiling to be done—and somebody’s got to do it!
Enjoy Your GrandchildrenDon’t let vision loss stop you! Indeed, there is no reason why declining vision needs to prevent you from enjoying your grandchildren.
Of course, there are definitely some adjustments that both the child and the adult with vision loss will have to make:
- Talk about it. Being open about discussing the fact that you don’t see as well as you once did opens the door for kids to ask questions. This helps satisfy their natural curiosity while helping them understands your vision and the way it affects how you see the world.
- Describe what you can see. It helps kids understand when you can paint a vivid picture for them with descriptions like, “I can tell your shirt has some writing on it, but I can’t read it from this distance,” or, “I can tell that you are smiling, but I can’t see the gap where you lost your tooth.”
Once the child’s curiosity is satisfied, move on. You won’t have to dwell on your vision loss for long. After initial questions have been answered, most children will be content with Grandpa or Grandma just being the old one who likes to play checkers with them and tell funny, embarrassing stories about Dad or Mom when they were young.
- Try not to become dependent on the kids. It’s natural for your young children or grandchildren to want to help you, especially when you are traveling with them. It’s important, however, that they don’t feel obligated to do so. Equally important, it would set back your sense of independence should you grow too dependent on them. Find ways to reinforce a respectful, interdependent adult-child relationship. In a grocery store, for example, where there are many different products, a child might “help” by reading labels and prices. In return, you can help teach the child about price comparisons, nutrition, and other shopping skills.
You and the Kids Can and Should Have Lots of Enjoyment From Activities You Can Share
- Table Games. These can include board games like Monopoly, Scrabble, dominos, chess, etc. Card games such as Go Fish, Concentration, and War for younger kids; Uno, Canasta, Wist, Pinochle, Cribbage, Bridge, and many other card games for older children can be entertaining and instructive. Many games and playing cards have been modified for persons with vision loss. See the Playing Cards and Games section for more information.
- Reading. Enjoying books together can be very entertaining and satisfying for both child and adult. If you have some vision, some large print books are available. For those who know braille, there are books with both braille and print so that a print reader and a braille reader can enjoy the book together. These are available from Seedlings Braille Books for Children, National Braille Press, or Twin Vision® Books and the Kenneth Jernigan Library for Blind Children.
- Homework. If you enjoy reading with your children or grandchildren, then helping them with their homework is the next logical step. Again, large print, braille, and magnifiers can help you read and understand their assignments so you can help. Although, when it comes to figuring out how long it takes for the blue train and the red train to meet if one’s going 50 mph and the other is moving at 40 mph, well, you may not remember how to calculate that. You can’t or shouldn’t do everything.
- Storytelling. Sharing experiences from your life or the lives of others or from stories you may have read when you were a kid, can be a wonderful way of sharing experiences, wisdom, and awakening imaginations.
Sports and exercise can be a great way to interact with your grandkids and help improve your health and that of the kids. A wide array of fun and competitive outlets are possible for you and the children in your care.
For very young children, tossing a brightly colored balloon around can be fun, physically challenging, and soft on people and breakable objects in the house. Balls with bells attached give good audible indication of where they are headed during a game of catch. Try shooting baskets with a brightly colored basketball and a contrasting rim and backboard for competitive fun.
Swimming, water or snow skiing, horseback riding, walking, jogging, hiking, and tandem bike riding are all fun activities that can be shared safely. Accompanying children to sporting events and other family outings enriches their experience and creates lasting memories for everyone.
Accidents Can Happen
Identifying and responding to accidents or illness is a concern of any parent or guardian. The most usual way to inspect a cut, burn, or rash, is through visual inspection. Fortunately, there are effective non-visual alternatives:
- Touching your child’s brow or chest can determine if there is a fever. Thermometers with audible and enlarged output are available for more exact temperature readings.
- Listening to breathing or placing your ear on your child’s chest can tell you if he or she is congested. Wheezing and short breaths are trouble signs. Still other illnesses will change the odor of the child’s breath.
- An important clue to health status is your child’s behavior. If he or she is unusually cranky, listless, hyper, or irritable, you might guess that something is not “right.”
- Labeling medications with large print, braille, or audible markings can ensure that you administer the proper medication at the proper times to your child. Keep at hand spoons commonly used in the kitchen or measuring cups and tubes that come with liquid medications to help with accurate dosages. See the Managing Your Medication article for more information on labeling medications.
If symptoms grow worse or if you have doubts about what course to take, contact your child’s pediatrician.
“Don’t Make Me Come Up There…”: Children and Discipline
Disciplining children while reinforcing desired behavior is an important part of caring for kids. Children naturally test the limits of the authority figure, and a person with vision loss can expect to be “tested” just as someone with full vision would be.
The telltale signs are largely the same. Is the home “too quiet?” Do you hear suppressed giggles or whispering? Maybe there’s the sound of crinkling of cellophane, as though an unapproved raiding of the Fig Newtons was taking place? Then it’s probably a good time to check what’s going on and call the kids on their behavior.
Once children learn that their actions can be deduced even if the person doing the deducing doesn’t see very well, then they’ll learn to stop trying to “pull the wool over your eyes.” Kids can and will try to take any advantage they can in order to “stay out of trouble”. They can soon learn that it is more possible to quietly hide an item they don’t want you to know they have if the person in charge has limited vision.
Relying on other senses like hearing and the sense of smell can give you some clues. Sometimes your instincts based on a lifetime of experience will alert you that something you can’t see may be going on. As is true in all good child raising practice, developing a mutual sense of respect and trust is the most important remedy to prevent a child from “putting one over on you”!
Things Are Different From When You Raised Your Kids
There are a number of changes which have occurred since you raised your own children. Some give you an advantage and some present you with challenges. In the 21st century, communicating with others is vastly different than they were 40, 30, or even 20 years ago. Many kids today have cell phones which can offer almost instant connections with others via voice or texting. If your child or grandchild has a cell phone, you can easily reach them and find out their whereabouts. Some cell phone providers offer a feature that lets you know where the cell phone, and hopefully the child, is located.
Having a cell phone can give a child more flexibility in going places and time constraints. Monitoring their behavior and whereabouts is relaxed because of the ease in contacting them by cell phone at any time.
It also presents opportunities for kids to get into more trouble. Being able to become “friends” with large numbers of others through social networking can expand their horizons but can also create alliances which are not wholesome.
Being able to do research on the Internet for homework can greatly expand access to information previously available only in print in the library or carrying heavy books in a back pack. Having computer access to the web also opens the door for kids to access websites that may have content the parent or grandparent might find objectionable. This presents serious challenges for those parents or grandparents who are not comfortable or knowledgeable in using a computer.
Electronic devices such as the X-box, Play Station, and the iPod can provide hours of entertainment and fun. If not used to escape interacting with others or being physically active, these devices can be a good source of entertainment. It may also serve as a barrier between the child and the Grandparent either because of interest or difficulty in sharing the experience because many of these devices are highly visual in nature. Helping the child to establish a balance between relying on entertainment provided by electronic gadgets and an active physical and social activity can be a significant challenge.
As is true with any generation, the music that appeals to kids today is very different than that which you may have enjoyed in the past. You may find it too loud and have difficulty understanding the lyrics. And, some of the music that is available uses language you might find unacceptable. Helping the child develop the judgment and discipline to make good judgments about what they listen to and share with others is, as it always has been, the only safeguard.
Time, Money, and Energy
If you, as a grandparent, are retired or only working part time, you may have more time to spend with the grandkids than parents who may be working. But, you most likely will have less discretionary money to spend, so planning carefully and communicating clearly with children what you can afford to do that is special and what you can’t is important. As we all get older, we do not have the same level of energy we had (or thought we had) when we were younger. Recognizing this and pacing yourself is also of great importance.
If any of the children you are helping to care for have physical or emotional difficulties which interfere with progress in school, you may want to explore getting additional assistance from the school distict through what is called “special education.” Federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), requires state and local schools to provide individualized services for children who are determined to have a qualifying disability. While these services can greatly improve the learning experience, the child may feel stigmatized by attending a special ed class or being transported to school on a special bus. These are genuine concerns that a child might have and helping them to understand that being “a special ed kid” does not mean that they are dumb or stupid, or that they will be expected to do less than other kids. In the final analysis, anyone with a disability must perform as well as anyone else even though they might do it in a different way. Perhaps the parent or grandparent with vision loss is in a good position to demonstrate this to a child who has a disability, or those who don’t.
Grandparents have a special gift to present to grandchildren—the wisdom and perspective that comes with a lifetime of experiences.